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Who Is My Neighbor?

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus’ instruction to love one’s neighbor as oneself prompts “a scholar of the law” to ask the question “who is my neighbor.” Jesus responds by telling the story we refer to as the parable of the Good Samaritan.

You remember the parable: A man is attacked by robbers, who leave him lying on the road half-dead. A priest notices him and passes by without helping. A Levite sees him and makes a wide berth around him. But then comes the despised Samaritan traveler, who stops and cares for the man. And not begrudgingly or minimally; he not only tends the mans’ wounds, but brings the man to an inn and pays for his being taken care of there.

I’ve shared before the account of an experiment that I always think of in connection with this parable. A class of seminarians was given the assignment to prepare a sermon on this parable of the Good Samaritan. They were divided into two groups – one group was given two hours to prepare the sermon and the second group was given twenty-four hours. They then left the building. On that stairs of the building lay a man obviously in need of assistance (the subject of the experiment).

Can you guess the results? Almost none of the seminarians who had been given two hours to prepare their sermon stopped to aid the man as they left the building. Indeed, it was reported that one practically jumped over the man in his haste to get home to get to work on his assignment. A much higher number of the group given twenty-four hours stopped to give the man assistance.

The priest and the Levite were very important men. Doubtless they had many important things they had to do and decided they couldn’t take the time to stop and help an injured man. And the seminarians in the first group had only two hours to prepare their sermon.

Sadly, I don’t think the reaction in either case is all that uncommon. Most of us have not jumped over an injured person on the street without giving assistance. But we do – more often than we’d like to admit – behave more like the priest and Levite than like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable. Some questions for reflection:

Are there times when what I’m doing seems so important that I fail to offer a greeting or even a smile to someone I pass in the hall at work?

Am I so wrapped up in my important task that I fail to even notice that someone is suffering and could use a word of encouragement or a hand on the shoulder from me?

Have I squandered opportunities to do a kindness for another because of my preoccupation with my own projects?

The answer to who is my neighbor is simple: All of those with whom I come in contact during the course of my day. We might ask ourselves every day: How am I doing in loving my neighbor?

Heal Us, God

Through the kind invitation of my friend, Rabbi Norman Cohen, last night I attended the evening Yom Kippur service at Bet Shalom Temple. I found the experience to be deeply moving.

Yom Kippur, as many people know is the Jewish day of atonement. “For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before God” (Leviticus 16:30). As the quote suggests, the atonement is for sins against God, not sins against another person. Atonement for sins against another person, requires that one seek reconciliation with that person, and, if possible, the righting the wrongs committed against that person. (That atonement should be done before Yom Kippur).

Last night’s service included beautiful prayers of blessing and prayers for forgiveness, spoken prayers and sung prayers, prayers in Hebrew and prayers in English. There were many parts of the service that touched me deeply. One that stood out was a sung prayer for healing. As the cantor repeated, “Heal us, God,” I found my eyes filling with tears.

At one level, the prayer asks forgiveness for our own sins. But as the words were sung, in my mind I saw pictures of ISIS executions of Christians, the war between Israel and Palestine, the Chinese government’s reaction to the protests in Hong Kong, crimes of violence in the United States and so many more. A kaleidoscope of pictures one after the other of the sins of the world – of the sins of God’s people.

Heal us, God, I prayed in the depth of my soul, as I listened to the singing of the cantor. Heal us, God: Not just those of us sitting here. Not just those of us who pray for your healing. Not just those we feel kindly toward. But heal us, heal all of us who are in need of your grace (that is, every one of us alive today), heal those who recognize that need and those who don’t.

Heal us, O God.

Note: My friend Larry Mitchell writes beautifully about Yom Kippur and Kol Nidrie (the opening prayer for the Yom Kippur evening service) here and here.

One of the consequences of our move to St. Paul is that I drive a lot less. Although I ride the UST shuttle between the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses, I have begun using the city bus system with frequency to get around to locations other than the law school. (Coming from NY, I view this as a great improvement in my life.)

Yesterday morning, I hopped on a bus to get to my acupuncture appointment. I sat behind a well-dressed man in his mid-50s who was engaged in an animated conversation with two older men, one of whom – a man in his sixties – looked like he hadn’t changed his clothes in a while. It became clear to me that the three men had never met before. They joked back and forth about their respective ages until the one in his 70s said, “You got to be grateful as long as you can stand up.” The well-dressed man added, “yes, so long as you can eat some food,” prompting the disheveled looking man to add, “I’m happy for my oatmeal and strawberries in the morning.” One of the others added, “yes, and grateful you can still remember who you are.”

The three men continued to carry on until the disheveled man got off the bus. After he did, the older man turned to the other and said, “you know, I couldn’t really understand a lot of what he said, since he was mumbling a lot.” They continued speaking in a friendly manner until the second of the three got off the bus.

A couple of thoughts went through my mind. One was that the disheveled man may have been hard to understand, but the others talked to him anyway. And, from the looks of him, it is entirely possible that was the only friendly conversation he might have that day.

Another was that even those sitting around the three men, including myself, who were not involved in the conversation were all smiling – and not just individually smiling to themselves, but at each other. You don’t get those kind of shared moments sitting in your car.

Finally, I was touched by the expressions of gratitude offered by the three men. Whatever their respective circumstances, each expressed a sense of gratitude for what they had.

If you haven’t done so in a while, try taking public transportation rather than driving. You never know what you might experience.

What Brings Me Joy?

Yesterday was the second session of the series on Discerning My Place in the World I am offering this year at UST Law School. The subject of our gathering yesterday was the question What Brings Me Joy?

An important part of our discernment of who we will be int he world has to do with ascertaining what brings us joy. Yet it is a question many people never focus on.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardon said “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” Unlike happiness, which depends on external stimuli, joy comes from a sense of rightness about where I am with God and others.

During our session, I spoke briefly about joy and then showed an excerpt from a video by Michael Hims title Three Key Questions. The full video appears below; we watched the first eleven minutes. After watching the film, the participants spent time in silent personal reflection with some quotes and questions on a handout I distributed (which you can find here). We managed to leave a little time at the end for dyad sharing and some larger group discussion, focusing particularly on how we recognize joy and distinguishing between happiness and joy.

[for those receiving this by e-mail, click through to the blog to see the video]

Note: I am informed by one of my readers here that the phrase “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God” was “first coined by Leon Bloy, a now-obscure 19th-century French writer. Teilhard repeated it.” (With thanks to Hilary)

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, a doctor of the church. She is more commonly referred to as Therese of Lisieux or The Little Flower.

Therese entered cloistered life at age 15 and died at age 24. She thus might easily have passed into obscurity but for the fact that the sisters of her Carmelite convent published her autobiographical writings, titled Story of a Soul, after her death.

Therese inspired people with her “little way of spiritual childhood.” In an introduction to the Story of a Soul, John Beevers describes Therese’s little way as

based on complete and unshakeable confidence in God’s love for us. This confidence means that we cannot be afraid of God even though we sin, for we know that, being human, sin we shall but, provided that after each fall, we stumble to our feet again and continue our advance to God, He will instantly forgive us and come to meet us. St. Thérèse does not minimise the gravity of sin, but she insists that we must not be crushed by it. . . . God’s love for us must be matched, within our human limitations, by our love for Him. . . . Now this interchange of love does away with the feeling that to please God we must do great and extraordinary things.

Therese’s image of God as a loving parent both aided her confidence in God’s love for us and gave her security that one need not do great things to please God.

Regarding little things, she wrote, “I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue.” My friend John Donaghy elaborates on this theme in his blog post of today, which I encourage you to read. You can find it here.

Regarding the constancy of God’s love, she gave the example of a little child who had “just annoyed his mother by flying into a temper or by disobeying her.” She observes that if the child hides away and sulks, he cannot experience is mother’s pardon. However, “if he comes to her, holding out his little arms, smiling, and saying, ‘Kiss me, I will not do it again,’ will his mother not be able to press him to her heart tenderly and forget his childish mischief?” This is true, says Therese, even though the mother knows full well that her child will, in fact, do it again. That the child will do it again “does not matter; if he takes her again by her heart, he will not be punished.” Therese understood that no matter what we do, when we turn back to our God and open our arms to Him, He is always ready to welcome us into His embrace.

Feast of the Angels

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of Sts. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels (in some countries, Michaelmas Day).

Archangels are believed to be messengers of God sent to guide and protect us. The three we celebrate today are named in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament.

Michael, called the “prince of the heavenly host,” is known as the great protector. In the tradition of the Church, Michael was the archangel who fought against Satan and his evil angels, and so he is considered the protector of all humanity from the snares of the devil.

Gabriel is known as the bearer of good news. In Luke’s Gospel, it is Gabriel who announces to Zachariah the birth of John the Baptist, and to Mary the birth of Jesus. And in the Hebrew Scripture, he was sent to Daniel to explain a vision concerning the Messiah.

Raphael is known as the divine healer. In the Hebrew Scripture, he took care of Tobias on his journey. As a result, he is invoked for journeys.

I don’t know if these three archangels have significance for some of you, but I see no reason to doubt the existence of spiritual, non-corporeal beings”, as angels are referred to in the Catechism. (Indeed, according to one polls I saw, 77% of adults do believe in angels.)

Many do have devotion to the angels. And while this is good, there is also a danger. The Directory on Popular Piety and Liturgy of the of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments identifies two possible deviations:

* when, as sometimes can happen, the faithful are taken by the idea that the world is subject to demiurgical struggles, or an incessant battle between good and evil spirits, or Angels and daemons, in which man is left at the mercy of superior forces and over which he is helpless; such cosmologies bear little relation to the true Gospel vision of the struggle to overcome the Devil, which requires moral commitment, a fundamental option for the Gospel, humility and prayer;

* when the daily events of life, which have nothing or little to do with our progressive maturing on the journey towards Christ are read schematically or simplistically, indeed childishly, so as to ascribe all setbacks to the Devil and all success to the Guardian Angels. The practice of assigning names to the Holy Angels should be discouraged, except in the cases of Gabriel, Raphael and Michael whose names are contained in Holy Scripture.

I think those are good warnings to keep in mind.

With those reminders, Happy Feast of the Archangels!

In October of last year, Pope Francis called for an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.

The synod, which will take place at the Vatican from October 5-19 of this year, is a means through which the Holy Father “wishes to continue the reflection and journey of the whole Church, with the participation of leaders of the Episcopate from every corner of the world,” in the words of Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi. The synod is likely to address some difficult issues regarding the family, such as contraception, same-sex marriage, divorce and other topics touching on family life.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked for today to be set aside as a Day of Prayer for the General Assembly. Churches and parish and other communities are invited to pray during Mass and at other ligurgical celebrations not only today, but in the days leading up to the synod and during the synod itself. Individuals are also encouraged to join in these prayers.

The suggested prayers include the Prayer to the Holy Family for the Synod, composed by Pope Francis:

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love, to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth, grant that our families too may be places of communion and prayer, authentic schools of the Gospel and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth, may families never again experience violence, rejection and division: may all who have been hurt or scandalized !ind ready comfort and healing.

Holy Family of Nazareth, may the approaching Synod of Bishops make us once more mindful of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, and its beauty in God’s plan.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, graciously hear our prayer. Amen.

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